A former US senator and presidential candidate who vehemently opposed Washington’s escalation of its war in Vietnam in the early 1960s had by 1978 heard enough of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge to advocate for multilateral military action in Cambodia.
Senator George McGovern, who died in 2012, gave an impassioned speech to the Senate in favour of intervention on August 21, 1978, which invoked the European Holocaust and may be one of the first instances of a US official arguing for what would become known as the Responsibility to Protect.
“A generation ago the world stood silently on the sidelines while Hitler systematically exterminated 6 million of our fellow humans,” he said. “[W]e vowed ‘never again.’ Never again would we remain silent in the face of such barbarism.”
He would call for “at the very least” the possibility of military action against Phnom Penh to be tabled at the next UN Security Council meeting.
But his comments did not sit well with Chinese officials in Washington, State Department cables released by WikiLeaks last week show.
Han Hsu of the People’s Republic of China’s Liason Office berated McGovern during a correspondent’s luncheon held for Chinese reporters two days after his Senate speech.
“Delegation members Chou Li-Fang and Li Yen-Ning then badgered the Senator for fifteen to twenty minutes, questioning his sources on Cambodian atrocities, asking if he was not suggesting the US should once again become the world policeman,” a cable sent on the same day from the State Department said.
The US government, however, was not about to advocate, through the UN or otherwise, for intervention.
Former Khmer Republic president Lon Nol was busy lobbying in Washington for the US to recognise the refugees under his leadership as a government-in-exile that could challenge Pol Pot’s Cambodia for a seat at the UN, a September 20 cable shows.
Such recognition would precede a guerrilla campaign by anti-Khmer Rouge forces in Cambodia.
The US, while being “most sympathetic” to his concerns, would not support his plea for assistance unless there was a civil war between Lon Nol’s supporters and the Khmer Rouge where both held significant portions of Cambodian territory.
A week later, the US made its position on military intervention clear in a cable to its embassies in countries that had relations with Democratic Kampuchea.
“Posts should not suggest or imply that the [US’s] abhorrence of the human rights violations occurring in Kampuchea means that it would support or condone a unilateral or multilateral intervention by any other power into Kampuchea.
“Unfortunately, the well documented massive killing of broad segments of the Khmer populations has created a situation where direct action has more appeal than would otherwise be the case.”